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Agreement protects 553 acres

David Mirhadi
The Union photo/David Mirhadi/ Beverly, Frank and Beth Smith (left to right) stand under a 250-year-old blue oak on the family's property Friday near the Spenceville Wildlife Area.
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When he was young, Frank Nichols would spend long summer afternoons at his family’s oak-studded ranch, chasing pheasants, ground squirrels and meadowlarks that frequently crossed the young boy’s path.

“When we were kids, we could wander around all day,” said Nichols, who doesn’t spend as much time at the nearly 600-acre compound near the Spenceville Wildlife Area these days as he did in his youth. “All my mom ever told us was ‘watch out for rattlesnakes.'”

That was more than 60 years ago, Frank Nichols admits. For the foreseeable future, Nichols said Friday as he walked the land his grandfather purchased from a trapper 149 years ago, the snake lookout is about all he’ll ever have to worry about.

The Nevada County Land Trust recently completed an agreement in the form of a conservation easement that protects the family’s 553 acres from future development.

In essence, the agreement means land that Ohio Valley farmer Dawson Nichols purchased will remain untouched, so that cattle may graze on the grasses nearby and blue oak trees, including one that is 21/2 centuries old, will thrive.

“This place is home,” said Beverly Nichols Smith, Dawson Nichols’ granddaughter, whose husband Scott worked for several years to protect the land before signing off on the easement last New Year’s Eve, less than three months before his death this past February. “He worked very hard to make this happen.”

Scott Smith, who worked the land diligently, was in fact righting a wrong, his family said, by protecting the family compound from future development.

The land that Smith worked to preserve, which sits several miles of dusty unpaved roads away from Beale Air Force Base, was once a piece of real estate encompassing 1,100 acres. When the Army needed land for Camp Beale in 1942, it seized the estate of Frank Nichols, whose son walked the property Friday, in an eminent-domain land grab.

“It was terrible, but people were patriotic. We had no choice. It felt like we were being kicked in the teeth,” the younger Frank Nichols said.

The Army gave the elder Nichols’ family $14 an acre for their land. In 1959, the family outbid large San Francisco cattle ranchers and other farming interests to recover 553 acres of the land, paying the Air Force (which took the land over from the Army) $83 an acre.

Today, family members realize they could get much more than the $500,000 that the easement is worth if they sold their compound to eager developers.

“The ranch is above money,” Beverly Smith said. “Money was never a part of this.”

Today, fewer than 100 Hereford cattle graze on tall grasses and drink from a cottonwood-lined creek at the bottom of a hillside. Maidu Indian tribal grounds are nearby. The house on the property is a primitive abode, with no telephone or electricity. A propane generator keeps the house cool when family or visitors come.

Tim Smith, 43, Dawson Nichols’ great-grandson and Beverly’s son, works the ranch part-time, if only to keep his family’s pioneering legacy alive.

“I just enjoy being here. You come up here feeling restored, like this place has a way of taking away your aches and pains.”


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